Transforming Thomas Jefferson’s successful education system

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Dec 9, 2010

How do we transform our education system to prepare our students for the world and challenges of tomorrow?

A few weeks ago, in mid-November, I had the privilege to once again attend and speak at the Virtual School Symposium, iNACOL’s annual online learning conference, which looks toward this very future. The title this year was “Online and Blended Learning: The Future of Education.”

As usual, it was a great conference—for my two cents, it’s consistently the best education conference year after year. The energy is infectious. The focus is on the student. And, in classic disruptive fashion, amidst tough budget times, it—and the sector more generally—continues to grow. The continuing innovation in the field is thrilling as well, as the title of the conference suggests.

During Governor Bob Wise’s keynote, however, the enormity of the task of transforming the system hit me, as he laid out the challenge for the nation in stark terms.

On one slide he showed the faces of 10 children. With a click of the button, 3 faces disappeared. The text read: “Three out of every ten students do not graduate from high school.”

With another click of the button, 3 more faces disappeared. The text read: “About half of those who graduate are not college- and work-ready.”

As I stared at the four remaining faces, I was struck with a strange thought. Were Thomas Jefferson to come back alive and see the same slide, he would spike a football and throw up his hands in triumph! The system worked almost exactly as he had hoped it would, in the sense that it sorted students out at different points. The system is a remarkable success at doing exactly what it was designed to do.

The problem? The world today and what we need our education system to do have changed radically. For today’s world, this “successful” system is a failure for the country and its students. Transforming it won’t be easy; changing anything that is so established and ubiquitous never is.

With this challenge looming large, I left the conference concerned that more people there were not talking and thinking deeply about quality and really using the online medium in ways that transcend anything we could do in a traditional classroom and our traditional system. After the School of One presentation on my panel for example, I heard mumblings from some that boiled down to: “What’s so special about that? We do the same thing.”

Now the School of One is certainly no panacea, but I do know that the majority of online learning out there does not even begin to contemplate the use of data like School of One does to drive personalized learning, just to name one aspect of what the School of One does that is interesting. The majority of the online learning courses out there are not adaptive, as the term should be properly understood. Data doesn’t help improve the course in real time down to the level of an individual’s needs in a non-linear fashion. In many ways, much of the online learning courses look like software from the 1990s, not what one might expect in the era of Netflix in the 2000s. To suggest otherwise is to be disingenuous—and not rigorous.

I hope the field does do better, and the topic of always improving quality and transforming the system toward a very different end from the one when Thomas Jefferson was alive—not to mention from the time of the industrial revolution—remains at the forefront of the conversation. If in 2019 50 percent of all high school courses are delivered online, for example, but it is still largely stuck in our current flawed, monolithic system that is designed to sort students out, online learning won’t have proven to be transformational in the way the country and its students so sorely need it to be.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.